Originally a game designer behind such titles as Realms of Arkania and Das Schwarze Auge, Guido Henkel was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany and now calls Southern California home.
In recent years he has turned his attention to writing speculative fiction. Rather than creating full-length novels, he wanted to create a series of horror pulp fiction novellas in the style of Sherlock Holmes and the John Sinclair series, and to make each volume short enough that readers could finish one in a day. Inspired by the gothic horror dime novels he read in his youth, he created the Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter series, which follows the exploits of the eponymous detective who investigates supernatural matters in Victorian London. There are nine volumes in the series to date, with many more planned, and each involves a different paranormal menace, whether it’s a ghost, a vampire, a demon, or a crooked doctor.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Henkel about the Jason Dark series, how he came up with the concept, and the design behind his new book covers. Continue reading to check out the interview!
Geeks of Doom: Beyond an appreciation of the genre after having read pulp fiction yourself, what made you decide to go back to this style of writing, largely abandoned after the 1960s?
Guido Henkel: I grew up devouring these dime novels when I was younger and they became integral part of me — the same way others would ingrain comic books in their lives and personalities. “Demon’s Night” was also the first piece of linear fiction I ever wrote. At the time I wasn’t sure if I actually had it in me to write a coherent story. A full-length novel felt intimidating — I was afraid I might abandon the project halfway through, so the shorter dime novel format was much more of an achievable goal, just to see how it went and how I enjoyed it Turns out that I had a blast writing it and I immediately began thinking of perhaps turning it into a series of stories, and with that in mind, I just kept writing.
GoD: I’ve read that you wanted to create the kind of book that someone can read in an afternoon sitting, somewhere from 60 to 70 pages, and it’s true that most novels today are more than double that length. Do you think that with the rise of eBooks that people are more willing to buy shorter fiction?
GH: I do think so, absolutely. There was never a really big market for novellas in print, but I’ve noticed that there are a lot of novella-length books on the Kindle, and many of them are quite successful. Even established writers like Scott Nicholson offer some incredible work that is novella-length, which would have been tremendously hard to get published using traditional print routes. Overall, there seems to be a trend currently, as I’ve noticed a lot of novels written and published by indie authors are much shorter than what we’ve come to expect traditionally. The current average length of an indie novel seems to be around 50,000 words whereas in the traditional system a novel used to be at least 80,000 words, most of them actually being well over 100,000. So there is a trend towards shorter books, it seems, but given the fact that most indie- published eBooks are priced so low — between $0.99 and $4.99 — it may not be surprising at all.
GoD: Fangoria certainly sang the praises of this series with some fantastic review quotes. Did that make you feel more validated for having chosen the “dime store novel” format, or was it more like icing on the cake?
GH: The validation — for me — was more to be taken seriously enough that Fangoria would even consider giving my stories a review — and a fully featured page at that. That was clearly an absolutely glorious highlight of my writing career so far. You have to understand that I’ve been a Fango fan since I first laid eyes on an imported copy in Germany when I was 18 or so. To actually be featured IN the magazine was a tremendous honour for me. It was only topped when Fangoria’s editor Chris Alexander actually approached me to write an exclusive Jason Dark serial for the magazine. It is a five-part story that I wrote specifically for Fango called “Food for the Dead” that started in issue #302, which hit streets last week. It is hard to describe how proud I feel about it.
When I started writing my stories, I hoped that I would be able to give the dime novel format a bit of a resurrection. It was a long shot, of course, and I knew that many readers had probably never seen one. Yet at the same time, the short format seemed perfect for these fast-paced times, where everyone seems to be on the clock with barely a free minute to spare. So, I felt very good going that route, knowing it would be different, a challenge, but also hoping that I would stand out of the crowd that way.
GoD: Why did you choose to tell the story of a detective? Did you always know that when you sat down to write this series that it would be about a Victorian supernatural investigator?
GH: I am not really sure where the idea came from. It was just something that instantly bumped into my mind. The German John Sinclair dime novel series might have played a part in that. It is about a modern day Scotland Yard agent who wards off evil in a weekly issue. I’ve always loved the series and I would say it was definitely influential on my embracing the whole dime novel concept. However, the Victorian setting was a foregone conclusion the minute I decided to write. To me the era is simply the epitome of classic horror.
GoD: The concept of the Geisterjäger or “ghost hunter” is one of the most interesting things about the series for me. Can you tell us a little bit more of the historical origins of the term, and how far back there are stories of these people not only in Germany but also in the rest of Europe?
GH: It is really something I made up and it sounds more important than it really is. The term “Geisterjäger” is really just the German translation for “ghost hunter.” I thought it would add a nice old-world touch to the stories to use that term, especially since the gothic horror films of Universal’s golden era all seemed to have these middle-European influences that helped set the stage. From German mad scientists, to the names of the people, like Baron Viktor von Frankenstein, Romanian gypsies, Transylvanian castles, all the way to Bela Lugosi’s infamous enunciation of “Beevare!”, these elements were part of the appeal to me. So I decided to give Jason Dark some of those roots and add a bit of mystique to the character.
GoD: One of the great things about the books is that it shows that you’ve examined Victorian England inside and out. What was the most interesting part of your research?
GH: It is hard to pinpoint any particular thing. I love London — always did — because it is one of those cities where can feel its history. You can walk into a small side street in the heart of London and feel transported back in time in an instant.
I don’t consider myself a specialist on the subject of Victorian England — far from it — but I do enjoy researching the city, events and the people during that period. The most fascinating part for me is always how you stumble from one thing to another during research. You start looking for one thing, let’s say a suitable location for an event, and you end up learning about something entirely different that is so much more exciting than what you had in mind originally.
I was completely enthralled when I wrote “Theatre of Vampires,” for example, and found that there was an old theatre that fit my needs to the T – it opened at the time I needed it to, it was shut down at the time I needed it to, there were other events surrounding it that perfectly meshed with my story, and it was right in the London West End where I wanted my story to play.
I try to be flexible while I plot out my stories, so that when I find intriguing trivia, I will be able to weave it into the story. “Dead by Dawn” is a perfect example for that. Following the general timeline I have for the series, I knew it would take place round April of 1881. As I always do, I started checking the news articles of that particular period and found out that the “London Museum of Natural History” was opened on Easter Sunday if 1881. Since I needed a crowd scene for the story I instantly knew that that would be it. Just imagine the bustle the event must have created — it attracted thousands of visitors on opening day — and it was perfect for the story. So, naturally, Jason Dark and Siu Lin are part of the gathering as well… and make a certain discovery.
The list is really endless and there are far too many gems and highlights to cover here.
GoD: I think that another part of writing fiction set in the past is the exciting possibility of including famous historical characters. Who were a few of your favourites to include in the books, and why?
GH: These cameos were something I decided to have from the start. To me it was an integral part of the appeal to write — to create sort of an alternate history where my stories mingle with real life events. I think it roots the stories, like the Museum opening I mentioned earlier, but it also adds interesting layers to the story, as every reader takes something different from it. Some references won’t be noticed, other stand out more. I felt it would be great to get people to talk about the series, to share with others the references they discovered, and to clue them in.
Every book in the series has such cameos and sadly I can’t talk about my absolute favourite one, because it would destroy some of the intrigue of reading the series. However, one of my alternate favourites is from “Dr. Prometheus,” where I actually managed to include a modern day reference. I would normally not do this because I’m afraid it would break the suspension of disbelief, but this one was just such a perfect fit.
In the story, a corpse is taken from a grave, by the name of Vincent Furnier. He is brought to Dr. Prometheus who then experiments on him. Jason Dark discovers the body and recognizes the man, whereupon Dr. Prometheus says something along the lines of “Yes, he was an entertainer of sorts. A musician with a knack for theatrics, I hear.” The kicker to the cameo is that Vincent Furnier is the birth name of shock rocker Alice Cooper. Given that he is a master of modern Grand Guignol and “killed” himself on stage thousands of times, only to magically resurrect himself, I found it only fitting that he gets the part of the first person raised from the dead by Dr. Prometheus.
But there are so many others. Elizabeth Bathory was great to work with as the Blood Witch, and she’s actually a dual cameo, because in the story she’s also referred to as the witch Asa, in reference to Mario Bava’s movie “Bloody Sunday.”
There are references to Jules Verne in the books, H.G. Wells, Dr. Fu Man Chu, to Jack The Ripper and his helper John Netley and then, of course, there are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For full details on that encounter, check out “Curse of Kali,” the latest adventure in the series that will be published shortly.
GoD: You’ve recently revised the cover art for the first three books of the series, and they look much edgier compared to the original designs, which rightly evoke more of a pulp fiction feel. What made you decide to change them, and will you change all of them?
GH: It was an experiment. Unfortunately the Jason Dark books have not taken off the way I had hoped, for reasons I am still trying to comprehend. The series has gotten great reviews, was covered across the web on blogs, etc. and yet, for some reason people mostly ignored them.
Thriller writer J. A. Konrath regularly hosts other authors on his blog, allowing them to talk about their work and sharing their success stories. I was fortunate enough that Joe gave me a slot and so I wrote a guest blog for his site, outlining all the things I had done for the series, and how it had strangely never really got the traction I had hoped for. A lot of people chimed in on that blog and left comments, letting me know their opinions, which I digested and evaluated. One of the tenors was that people did not like the covers, found them too cheesy, too retro, too pulpy, etc. The same was true for the product description and so forth.
It got to the point that I realized that people really did not seem to appreciate the “pulp” aspect of the series. So I decided to give “Demon’s Night,” the first book, a complete make-over, including cover, description, and a complete revision of the book itself, along with some smaller details. I re-launched the book to see if this new presentation would make any difference. In the wake of it I also created a new cover for “Ghosts Templar” and did the same, just so I have a better comparison of the effect of the cover in relationship with the sales. Here is a more detailed look at how the book was reworked.
GoD: How have readers responded so far? Have you found that you’ve heard from several people wishing that more authors would return to this style?
GH: Almost universally, people who read books in the series kind of fell in love with them. Naturally, you have some people who are simply not into this kind of short-length, action-packed pulpy type of literature, but I found the majority of readers enjoying it quite a bit. Many got back to me, saying that it was a wonderful experience that was so very different from all the other books they read. I take that as a compliment.
GoD: How long do you expect that the Jason Dark series will continue? What else can we expect from the wily ghost hunter?
GH: It is hard to tell. I have notes for well over fifty story ideas in my writer’s journal, each of which would make a great Jason Dark mystery. I love writing these stories, they
are in my blood. I breathe this kind of stuff, and I have honestly fallen in love with the characters and the world they inhabit.
Ultimately, it is all a matter of how well the series performs in terms of sales. I certainly have enough ideas to keep Jason Dark busy for years.